There can’t have been another band in history who arrived with a backstory and image more acutely designed to make certain music fans (ie: journalists) cry with pleasure than the Kings Of Leon. Here was a band raised by a man with a Bible in one hand and a bottle in the other; a band who apparently spent many of their formative years living in a car; a band who were even more than the last gang in town that every band wants to be – a band of actual brothers and cousins.
Here was a band who appeared to be everything we wanted them to be, all at once. They were the Partridge Family ruined by malnutrition and alcoholism, a modern-day Ingalls family from Little House On The Prairie picking out riffs on home-made fiddles in the barn that Daddy built, a prowling group of Waltons boys let loose on the world after their balls all dropped over one terrifying weekend. Here was a band that arrived dressed in exactly the same thrift-store T-shirts that every blank-eyed cretin on Hollyoaks and every grinning homunculous presenting tots’ TV wore, only the Kings looked like they might have actually bought theirs in an real thrift store for a couple of dollars, rather than buying it ready-distressed from Selfridges for £54.99.
But, perhaps most confusingly, here was a band who arrived, perfect and fully formed, still reeking of a part of America that remains largely an intangible mystery even in the 21st century, a band who arrived just as Cameron Crowe’s rock-hack classic Almost Famous made long-forgotten ’70s Southern rock giants like The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd bizarrely fashionable. Then, suddenly, there was this lot. They had beards and long hair. They had funny accents and olde-worlde manners. They appeared never to have heard of hip-hop, Sunny D or mobile phones. They couldn’t have been better if they’d been pieced together in a laboratory. So the Kings looked at the hacks and the hacks looked at the Kings and it was love at first sight. We weren’t watching Almost Famous any more, we were in it.
Unfortunately, in the Kings’ case, love wasn’t so much blind, as deaf. ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ was no more in debt to Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival or any other shit-kicking stadium rock act dressed to impress in weathered denim and flowing facial hair than, say, Dizzee Rascal. The difficult truth of the matter is that they were a hundred times more complex and interesting than that. And now, to confuse things further, ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ leaves any remnants of that Southern schtick for dust.
Let’s take ‘Razz’, for example. It starts with a bassline that sounds as if Jared pulled it directly from an old Motown record – fairly shambolically, it must be said – before deciding that some junk-shop disco drums and a hefty portion of raggedy-arsed ska guitar parts would top it off nicely. Play this to Lynyrd Skynyrd fans and you’d get lynched – literally, Alabama’s not that sweet you know.
Then there’s ‘Milk’ – a work of real beauty that grows from thin threads of ambient synth, through Caleb’s spare acoustic guitar part and gurgling growl of a voice to tell the tale of a girl – a young girl, too – who’s got an “hourglass body” who’s quite accommodating, like many of the women who appear on this record. I’m thinking of the lady in ‘Soft’ who happily reveals her “perfect nipples” here. She’ll do everything from “loan you her toothbrush”, to “bartend your party”. Would you be surprised if I said it develops into a soft-rock hum of melodic joy before disintegrating back into the synth? I was.
‘Day Old Blues’ – a brilliantly cynical, heartbroken rant explaining how being in a rock group is rubbish (“Girls are going to love the way I toss my head/Boys are going to hate the way I seem”) – dispenses with almost everything but the back-porch guitar it ambles in on. ‘Slow Nights, So Long’, the hip-dipping, psyched-out, Who-flavoured opening track, breaks down into a calypso-flavoured tropicalian jazz coda – no, really – where Caleb gets to croon, “Rise and shine all you gold-diggin’ muthas/Are you too good to tangle with the poor, poor boys?” I don’t recall The Allman Brothers being quite this adventurous. Come to think of it, I don’t remember many stadium-levelling boogie monsters doing anything as gloriously metronomic, as rigidly motorik as ‘King Of The Rodeo’ either.
Listen to the way Matthew and Caleb’s guitars swing on totally different tangents yet complement each other every time they pass. This is music that has its eyes and heart set on a wider world than that offered by a fast-shrinking globe’s soulless enormodomes. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine some terrible old substance abusers – perhaps The Eagles, or Crosby, Stills & Nash – coming up with a track called ‘Velvet Snow’ because, frankly, if it’s not about aggravatingly repeated cocaine use then it certainly ought to be. But it’s unlikely that any collection of Californian super soft-rocking longhairs you care to mention would have managed to keep up with the track’s frenetic, over-wired pace and head-spinning, stream-of-unconsciousness lyrics.
Clearly, somehow, somewhere on the never-ending tour that followed the release of ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ the Kings lost several key parts of their minds, in particular the ones that make bands release the same old shit, drawn from the same drained, dry old well, year in year out.
Happily, it would seem from the evidence presented here that the freshly shorn Kings are intent on rebuilding themselves from scratch, drawing on whatever wild and wonderful influences they’ve tripped over in their race to live five lifetimes in every day. How else could you explain the fact they’ve found room to shoehorn in a truly odd waltz-time number that weirds out enough to spin the album to a close on some insane sort of floaty, early-’60s Polish jazz? Again – and please correct me if I’m wrong here – not a big player with the Bud’n’Ludes crews of America, be they the mid-’70s edition or the super-brand-hugging consumers of today.
I never really got the Kings Of Leon before. I could never get past Caleb’s howl of a voice, or Nathan’s beard. I walked past them in a hotel lobby once. They were dressed in floppy hats, painfully tight stripy tops and middle-aged ladies’ sunglasses and it all just seemed so contrived, so deliberate, that it actually took my breath away. Consequently, lots and lots of people assured me that this record would take quite a few listens to really enjoy, that I wouldn’t get it unless I lived with it for a while, that it was a bit difficult. Well, that’s bollocks. I fell in love with it immediately, as you will if you let yourself get past what you think the band are all about and actually listen to what they’re doing, what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
Do yourself a favour – don’t believe another word of what you read about the Kings Of Leon. Apart from these ones, naturally.